JulieHera DeStefano never expected watching a mother make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her child would change her life. One afternoon, while watching the Oprah Winfrey Show, DeStefano watched as a daughter asked her mom – a veteran – to make her the sandwich. What had once been a simple, mundane task was now a challenge: She had to learn to make it with one arm.
“War doesn’t affect the average civilian on a daily basis. It stays over there. We’ve been afforded the luxury of being disconnected from it,” says DeStefano. Often, she continued, what society needs to be aware of are the things we don’t talk about. “We comment on their bravery, the honor of their service, but little goes into the day-to-day understanding of life during deployment, or the transition coming home.”
From her “Aha moment,” DeStefano developed the idea for the documentary Journal to Normal: Women of War Come Home. A former actress and off-Broadway director, she spent three and half months in Afghanistan interviewing more than 100 women, asking them a simple question, “What do you want us to know?”
“A lot of women were frustrated that I wanted to talk to them because they were female… That something they had no control over is what brought me half way around the world,” she said. “They are soldiers, not females first.”
Women now comprise up to 15% of the total military force,[i] a growing number whose needs and contributions are publicly under-represented. DeStefano says, “We sometimes get so focused on narrow angles of veteran experiences.”
“In addition to the stories of sexual harassment and post-traumatic stress, it is also important to see that women come out of the military stronger, with a new view on life and the world.”
In addition to the stories of sexual harassment and post-traumatic stress, it is also important to see that women come out of the military stronger, with a new view on life and the world.
“We need to be reminded that not all female’s military experiences are bad,” she said.
While only eight women are profiled in the documentary, DeStefano said, “We could have thrown all 100 names in a hat, pulled out any eight and it would have been just as remarkable a film.” Simply put, “These are knock-your-socks-off kind of women.”
I was lucky enough to speak with one of them.
At 28-years-old, Devon Reyes has been deployed twice, is a mother and a wife. Reyes is a composite of the things that make women similar, yet unique. Her position: U.S. Army Captain, working in Military Intelligence.
When I call her, she is in her car on the way home after having to change out a tire. Her baby is in the back seat. She sounds oddly unflustered. When she settles in at home, she calls me back. Below is our conversation.
TSR: Were you treated differently as a woman in the military?
Reyes: We’re soldiers, not women first. That’s kind of part of our training. You know, ‘Equal opportunity bleeds green.’ When you start differentiating by sex within the military, it really has an effect on morale, discipline – it can lead down the winding road to conflict in the unit.
TSR: Are there different expectations for women upon return?
Reyes: Of course. At home, we are expected to be softer: Softer personalities, softer towards our spouses… that domestic role. It is a little bit challenging to go from being almost intentionally hard nosed to everyday life.
TSR: Did the world change? Did you change, or both?
Reyes: I think we changed more. I remember when [my husband and I] were sitting in Tim Horton’s [restaurant]. We were sitting in front of all these soldiers, having breakfast together. My husband kept saying, ‘Check. Roger.’ I had to tell him, ‘I am your wife, can you knock off all the “Checks” and the “Rogers?” I’m not your soldier.’
TSR: What caught you off guard about the return process?
Reyes: The first time I came home, I was not prepared for the depression. They talk to you about it. I remember being told ‘once that honeymoon period is over of getting home, don’t be surprised if you have to deal with depression.’ I thought ‘that won’t happen to me.’
TSR: Reyes says for the first three months, she and her husband were too busy planning their wedding, moving houses and setting up their lives to process what had happened. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks.
Reyes: We call it the dark times. For four months, it was awful, absolutely awful. It took a little bit of separation. My battalion commander sent me down to Fort Polk, Louisiana. I was there for a month. I finally had a chance to decompress. When I came back, everything felt lighter.
“…There isn’t really a journey to normal. The journey is what’s normal.”
My husband and I had made a commitment. In the Catholic Church, divorce is not an option. He would come home and see me in a dark room, staring at a wall. He told me later that he would think to himself, ‘It’s gonna be a long 50 years.’ That was oddly comforting. At least we were in it together.
TSR: How was your first return different than your second?
Reyes: Coming back from the second one, that was much easier. We treated the first one like a time block. We really focused on communication during the second deployment. It made it so much easier. More people should know this.
TSR: What’s more difficult, being a post-military mom or being deployed?
Reyes: Being a soldier was harder for me, it’s part of the reason why I left the military. I felt a great sense of fulfillment in serving my country, I very much enjoyed that, but there was a lot missing from the military. I didn’t feel like my soul was being filled. I felt a little bit stifled, knowing that promotion could only occur so quickly. I grew frustrated with the bureaucracy.
TSR: Do you miss anything about being in the military?
Reyes: I don’t miss deployment. I think the only thing I do miss is having that mission, that purpose, the sense of achievement.
TSR: What was the most meaningful part of your return?
Reyes: I came home to the love of my life. We had only met six months prior to getting deployed. I was so beside myself with sadness at having to leave him. It was just gut wrenching.
TSR: You have a daughter now. Would you let her join the military?
Reyes: Absolutely. I have zero regrets. I’m nothing but grateful. But I’m a mom. Of course I’d worry about her.
TSR: What do you want other returning soldiers to know?
Ultimately, that there isn’t really a journey to normal. The journey is what’s normal.
As DeStefano notes, American women returning home, are “beautifully extraordinary and beautifully normal.” Hanging up the phone as Reyes’ child cries in the background, I imagine her returning to her duties with military discipline.
Thank you to JulieHera DeStefano and Devon Reyes for their time and work. All facts and information, unless otherwise noted, are attributed to the Journey to Normal website.